Nairobi – Uhuru Kenyatta, who was sworn in on Tuesday for a second and final term after a bruising election season, is the son of Kenya’s founding president and a man who epitomises the country’s elite.
The 56-year-old US-educated multi-millionaire, whose family owns an array of businesses, properties and land, followed in his father’s footsteps when he defeated his rival Raila Odinga to become president in 2013.
However, securing a second term required an acrimonious and drawn-out process that has split the nation, handing him the tricky task of trying to heal deep tribal and political schisms.
At his inauguration in front of a capacity crowd at the 60 000-seat Kasarani stadium, he said: “I will devote my time and energy to build bridges, to unite and bring prosperity.”
Uhuru Kenyatta is opening the Borders in Eastern Africa.
— Black Butterfly (@greateraspect) November 28, 2017
He also acknowledged the damage done by Kenya’s costly politics, exemplified during the disruptive months of unrest that led to his swearing-in.
“We have pursued politics as an end in itself, rather than as a means to economic prosperity. This must end,” he said.
Odinga and Kenyatta’s rematch – billed as their final showdown – was in August won by Kenyatta, with 54% of the vote, but the Supreme Court annulled the results due to “irregularities” and ordered a re-run.
An angry Kenyatta called the judges “crooks” and threatened to “fix” the courts. However, he accepted the ruling and went on to win the second poll with 98% after Odinga refused to take part, claiming it would not be free and fair.
The Supreme Court was again asked to dismiss the result, but this time upheld Kenyatta’s victory.
Privilege and wealth
Kenyatta’s first term was defined by big spending on eye-catching infrastructure and impressive economic growth in a tough climate.
But this has gone hand-in-hand with spiralling debt and widening inequality.
Terrorism has also been a consistent threat, with Kenyatta forced to address the nation in doleful terms after bloody attacks in 2013 and 2015.
The former finance minister and deputy prime minister was born in 1961, shortly after his father Jomo Kenyatta was released from nearly a decade in British jails and before becoming Kenya’s first president in 1964.
His first name means “freedom” in Kiswahili.
Educated at a private school in Nairobi and at Amherst College in the United States, Kenyatta is regarded as a leader of the Kikuyu people, the country’s single largest ethnic group.
He is married with three children and regularly attends Catholic church.
In 2011 Forbes magazine estimated Kenyatta’s wealth at $500m.
Despite his elite background, Kenyatta has a common touch. He easily mixes it up with ordinary Kenyans, eagerly gets down on the dance floor, joshes in the local youth slang and, in his younger years, earned a persistent reputation for partying hard.
Kenyatta’s political career is a case study in pragmatism.
In the 1990s, he joined with the sons of other independence heroes to call for democratic reforms but then became a close ally of autocratic former president Daniel arap Moi who had him nominated as the ruling party’s candidate for the presidency in 2002.
Kenyatta lost to fellow Kikuyu politician Mwai Kibaki but then backed Kibaki’s successful re-election bid in 2007, against Odinga who at the time was allied with William Ruto, now Kenyatta’s deputy and running mate.
The violent fallout from the disputed result led to the deaths of over 1 100 people and, eventually, to a power-sharing government in which Kibaki was president, Odinga prime minister and Kenyatta one of his deputies.
Kenyatta and Ruto were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged roles in orchestrating the violence.
But in 2014 the court dropped charges against Kenyatta – and later Ruto – citing the disappearance of witnesses and lack of evidence.
Despite, or perhaps because of the ICC indictment, Kenyatta and Ruto won the 2013 election, campaigning on a platform of nationalism, sovereignty and confronting imperialism in the form of the foreign court.
Kenyatta beat Odinga in the first round with a wafer-thin margin of 50.03% – a result Odinga disputed, unsuccessfully, in court.
The 2017 election season is seen as the final act in a multi-generational political rivalry stretching back half a century to when Jomo Kenyatta and Odinga’s father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, vied for control of the nation.
Kenyatta must stand down after one more term and, at 72, Odinga is regarded as too old to make another bid for the presidency in five years time. Both men’s children are, for now, inexperienced in politics.